"New generation"? Miliband really meant it, says Mehdi Hasan

Umunna and Reeves are among the "newbies" joining Labour's new shadow cabinet.

At the start of his first conference speech as Labour leader, in September 2010, Ed Miliband proclaimed:

Conference, I stand here today ready to lead: a new generation now leading Labour.

He used the phrase 14 times in that single speech.

A year later, in the form of his first shadow cabinet reshuffle, Miliband has shown us how actions speak louder than words. The Labour leader appointed six new MPs to his shadow cabinet today: Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves, Michael Dugher, Stephen Twigg, Margaret Curren and Liz Kendall.

It is a bold (unprecedented?) move -- but one that I believe will pay dividends. Here's what I wrote in my NS column 12 months ago:

Where are the newbies? If Labour wants to construct an appealing shadow cabinet, rather than a cabinet of shadows, the party has to be bold and unorthodox; it has to promote new blood.

Members of the 2010 intake, such as Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Lisa Nandy -- all young, dynamic, articulate and intelligent -- have kept their heads down. A senior Labour MP says: "Stop mentioning Chuka's name . . . You're going to make him unpopular in the eyes of his peers and wreck his career."

Why? Because "experience", it seems, matters. Candidates are keen to stress their experience, ministerial or otherwise, in the various missives clogging up inboxes across the PLP. But experience is overrated. As Tony Blair proudly says at the outset of his memoir, A Journey, he arrived at No 10 on 1 May 1997 with no ministerial experience. The same is true of David Cameron -- elected to the Commons as an opposition MP in 2001 but Prime Minister by 2010. Barack Obama, meanwhile, spent just 26 months in the Senate before running for the most important job in world politics.

Nor does a lengthy CV automatically translate into good political judgement. As Ed Balls has argued, the "fortysomethings" in the cabinet who were attracted by the prospect of an "early" general election in the autumn of 2007, including himself, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, were proved right in the end, compared to the "greybeards", such as Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon, who wrongly urged caution.

This isn't about ageism (Curren, after all, is 52), or turning a blind eye to the value of experience. It is about the political advantage to Miliband of having a fresh crop of Labour frontbenchers who are untainted by the Blair-Brown wars, don't have to blindly defend the last Labour government, are loyal, energised and enthusiastic, and, crucially, symbolise "change", "newness" and a break with the past. Opposition, remember, is a team activity; it isn't a solo sport.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.